People assume that it’s easier to be “gluten free” today than it has ever before. Many restaurants now offer gluten free menu options, and food manufacturers have been pumping out an abundance of “gluten free” varieties of their original products. The “Gluten Free” diet has become all the rage, but not to the benefit of those suffering from celiac disease.
People who suffer from celiac disease must adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. And this is where the trouble lies with following a strict gluten-free diet begins. Food labels can be very misleading for someone with celiac disease.
For instance, when a product is labeled “Gluten Free”, one believes that the food will not contain any gluten. Any why would anyone one doubt a label. It wouldn’t be on the packaging if it wasn’t true. The label says – Gluten Free – it will be free of gluten. Right?
But this is not true. A “Gluten Free” food label does NOT mean the food is free of gluten. Some foods that are labeled “Gluten Free” still contain gluten.
Wait – What?! You’re kidding?!
No. I am completely serious! Food manufacturers are allowed to place the label of “Gluten Free” on their products as long as their product(s) measure 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten or less.
Why is 20 ppm of Gluten considered a safe level of gluten exposure for a person suffering from celiac disease?
Why is 20 ppm? Why not ZERO?!
The reason 20 ppm has been established as the amount of gluten that can reside in a food labeled “Gluten Free” is because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relies on scientifically validated methods for enforcing its regulations and “Analytical methods that are scientifically validated to reliably detect gluten at a level lower than 20 ppm are not currently available (Celiac.org).”
According to Celiac.org, the Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF) Medical Advisory Board also supports the 20 ppm of gluten labeling standard as a level of gluten that is tolerated by those with celiac disease without adverse health effects. The Center for Celiac Research also agrees with the standard stating, “research from the Center has shown that 10 milligrams per day of gluten consumption is a safe level for the vast majority of individuals with celiac disease.”
How much is 10 milligrams of gluten? 10 milligrams of gluten is about one-eighth of a teaspoon of flour, or 18 slices of gluten free bread (each slice at 20 ppm of gluten).
Manufacturers are NOT Required to Test Products to Label Products “Gluten Free”
More troublesome news when it comes to the “Gluten Free” label is that manufacturers can place a “Gluten Free” label on their products before their product is tested. The FDA does enforce the legitimacy of foods labeled “Gluten Free” by following up on consumer reviews or complaints, performing food label reviews, and analysis of food samples. It is then that a manufacturer would have to prove their “Gluten Free” product is truly gluten free or not.
General Mills has received much criticism over the last few years concerning their “Gluten Free” Cheerios. The process in which the Cheerios are made appears to be where the problem sits; mainly in the mechanical separation of oats from the wheat, barley, and rye. Despite still seeing Cheerios on store shelves with the “Gluten Free” label as well as a label for it being sponsored by the Celiac Disease Foundation, many are deeming Cheerios unsafe for those with celiac disease.
According to BuzzFeed News, The Canadian Celiac Association advised “that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity DO NOT consume the gluten-free labeled Cheerios products at this time because of concerns about the potential levels of gluten in boxes of these cereals (BuzzFeed News).”
The article claims that this problem is not limited to General Mills. A physician at Boston Children’s Hospital, Jocelyn Silvester, says, “We certainly have patients who have become symptomatic after eating Cheerios and other foods made from mechanically-optically separated oats. Cheerios gets villainized, but they’re just one of the many manufacturers who are switching to mechanically-optically separated oats.”
Recent Study Shows People on Strict Gluten Free Diet Still Getting Exposed to Gluten
In a recent study, published February of 2018 by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the objective was to determine how much gluten was being accidentally consumed by those following a strict gluten free diet. The study found “that many individuals following a GFD regularly consume sufficient gluten to trigger symptoms and perpetuate intestinal histologic damage ( The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).”
Whether or not this accidental ingestion of gluten is result of the loose labeling of “Gluten Free” products is unclear. But it does suggest a scary and unsafe scenario for a person who needs to adhere to a strict gluten free diet, especially those with celiac disease.
What Can You Do to Protect Yourself from Gluten
As a person who personally suffers from Celiac Disease and who works hard to heal my gut just like many others with celiac disease, the loose labeling of gluten free products is very concerning and scary. This should be a black and white system, with little room for error, but it is not the case. So what’s a celiac to do?
Become a Savvy Food Label Reader
Obviously, we understand that a food labeled “Gluten Free” does not mean that the food product is completely free of gluten. We have to become knowledgeable about the information the food label leaves out.
We have to learn how to read in between the lines of the food label. Some ingredients have the potential to contain gluten. Oats are a perfect example because it is naturally gluten free, yet the process in which it is separated from the wheat, barley, and rye may contaminate the oats with gluten (just like the oats being used in Cheerios through mechanical sorting equipment).
Don’t rely on the allergen ingredients listed on the food label. Not every manufacturer has labeled their products “Gluten Free” even if their products are gluten free. However, if a food product does not have the “Gluten Free” label and it also does not list wheat under the allergen ingredients, it still does not mean that the food product does not contain gluten. There are 8 allergens (Soy, Milk, Tree Nuts, Peanuts, Corn, Wheat, Fish, Eggs, & Shellfish) that food manufacturers are required by law to state on their labels. Barley and Rye contain gluten but are not required to be listed on the food labels.
Lastly, when in doubt, don’t risk it – skip it.